With 70 years of relative peace across western Europe, few of us really understand what it is to be free. Perhaps today’s political and personal refugees? Those brave people escaping oppressive regimes or dangerous situations every single day. Along with those who lived through a war-torn Europe, they will tell you that you only know what freedom means when you’ve lost it.
A route to freedom for the Allied Forces
Imagine being shot out of the sky by an enemy fighter plane. You land in a field somewhere in the middle of France. You have just an RAF uniform, a standard-issue yellow phrase book, a pocketful of cash and scant knowledge of a perilous escape route to get you back home. There was no knowing whether you would make it, nor what you might encounter along the way. This is no adventure. It is a fight for your life. A fight for freedom.
There were just a few escape routes through occupied Europe. The Freedom Trail directly south went through The Pyrenees, over the Chemin de la Liberte into Spain, where an Allied pact with General Franco might secure your safe passage down to Gibraltar. From the RAF base there, you could get back to England or into Allied-controlled north African territories.
Making it depended on finding a succession of local helpers (passeurs) prepared to hide you, feed you, direct you and sometimes even transport you to the next stage.
Today, this journey would take a matter of hours to complete in the comfort of speeding cars and motorway service station stops. Then, it took several gruelling months. Starvation. Exhaustion. Terror. Fear. Exposure to extreme temperatures, foreign environments and the hands of people you simply did not know whether you could trust. Or not. The conditions endured by the hundreds of men and women who followed the trail to freedom during the Second World War were brutal.
A trail to freedom for resistance fighters and Jewish refugees
It wasn’t only the Allied pilots and soldiers who were forced to surrender their fate to the Freedom Trail. Thousands of French civilians, resistance fighters and European Jews attempted to escape Nazi occupation on the Chemin de la Liberte. Many failed. They were either captured, shot, betrayed by collaborators or simply too weak to continue.
Under Nazi occupation, thousands of young French men were issued forced labour orders, under which they were deported to Germany to work in factories, farms and mines to sustain the war effort. With millions of German men out fighting and millions more German Jews, political opponents and ‘undesirables’ exterminated in concentration camps, the Nazi regime continued to feed their machine of terror and aggression using slave labour from the very countries they had invaded and occupied.
The French conscripts knew the conditions would be brutal. Clearly, the decrees (Service du Travail Obligatoire) forcing French civilians to work for the Nazi war effort were indiscriminate. Resistance fighters were called up alongside collaborators. Thousands of young men issued with their labour papers fled, taking to the Freedom Trail as their only way to escape. Their passage was more perilous than that of the allied fighters.
General Franco’s pact to secure passage of allied forces to Gibraltar did not extend to French, Belgian and Dutch civilians. After all, he was a dictator of a Facist regime which tolerated Nazi Germany. For civilians, it was not enough to reach Spanish territory. They had to make it undetected all the way. The lucky few may have been traded by General Franco with the Allies. A French civilian for a sack of wheat. The majority did not make it and served out the rest of the war in squalid, overcrowded Spanish jails. Some were returned to the hands and mercy of the Gestapo. Neither fate was preferable nor was the journey easy. Yet a glimmer of hope is so powerful that people will battle against the odds towards it.
Chemin de la Liberte – Crossing the Pyrenees
Clad in little more than roughly-hewn farm labourers’ clothes and inadequate shoes; weakened by weeks of malnourishment, fear and lack of sleep; and travelling at night to evade detection, those on the Chemin de la Liberte would tackle what modern walkers are only advised to do under the most advantageous conditions.
Fully-equipped walkers are advised to tackle the Chemin de la Liberte only in the height of summer (July to September), with an experienced guide and in groups.
The Freedom refugees had no choice but to brave the elements at all times of year, in all conditions, without a guide, compass, map or safety equipment.
Freedom Trail refugees would hide out in sheds and mountain shacks for weeks until a group large enough had formed for the local guide to direct them to safety. The guides could not be seen to be disappearing too frequently for risk of detection.
With little more than a rucksack filled with bread, sausage and chocolate to last them a few days, Freedom Trail refugees were escorted as far as local guides could go without raising suspicions in their villages by long absences. Then they were left to their own survival instincts to scale the 2,600 metres, cross the snowfields and sections of giant boulders until they reached the border.
Unsurprisingly, many found it just terrifying. Fear forced refugees to turn back when faced with a perilous ravine crossing. Airmen literally had to pull their colleagues through the paralysis of fear of the sheer drops and precipices in the high Pyrenees.
As the war progressed, the local guides and mountaineers had to take ever greater risks to evade Gestapo patrols and detection by local informants. They would draw on their decades of local knowledge to plot routes over the peaks that secure the safety of the refugees.
Yet even so, it was not unusual for guides (passeurs) to be ambushed or discovered. A great many lost their lives. A great number ended up in jail or camps.
It is, however, testament to their bravery that so many allied forces, civilians and Jewish refugees did make the crossing and survived the trail to freedom.
It is thanks to an ingenious and doughty network of passeurs, and the incredulous bravery and resistance of a handful of notable individuals spearheading the safe passage of people along the Freedom Trail that so many survived.